In response to a growing concern about a new malady that has killed an estimated 400,000 bats north of here and may be headed this way, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has closed all of its caves to public entry until further notice.
The grave and deadly disease sweeping bat populations from Virginia to New Hampshire is known as White-nose Syndrome, so-called for a signature white fungus that appears around the bat’s muzzle. Bats with the disease emerge from hibernation severely underweight to the point that they often starve before the insects they feed on emerge in the spring. Once a colony is infected with the fungus, it spreads rapidly and may kill up to 90 percent of the bats within that cave in one season.
“White-nose Syndrome is believed to be transmitted from bat to bat but also may be inadvertently transported from cave to cave by humans,” said Bill Stiver, park wildlife biologist. “It has not yet arrived in Tennessee or North Carolina, so we are closing all our caves to reduce the odds of the fungus hitching a ride to our protected caves on a caver coming from a state where it is already established.”
Violators face fines of up to $5,000 or six months imprisonment.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked cavers to voluntarily curtail all acitivity in nine states where White-nose Syndrome is present and adjacent states.
While scientists are nearly certain the disease is spread from bat to bat, it has been found in caves a significant distance from affected populations, leading scientists to believe that something else is moving White-nose Syndrome.
“We suspect that White-nose syndrome may be transmitted by humans inadvertently carrying WNS from cave to cave where bats hibernate,” said Northeast Regional Director Marvin Moriarty of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When venturing to caves outside of the affected areas and the neighboring states, cavers should use new gear and clothing that has never been in an affected or adjacent state.
Cavers everywhere should avoid caves and mines during the bat hibernation period in winter to avoid disturbing bats, when an inadvertent rousing out of hibernation can cause bats to expend precious calories.
“We understand that following these recommendations will inconvenience recreational cavers, but we believe this is the most responsible course of action as we face this unknown threat to bats, which play an important role in our world,” Moriarty said.